How To Protect Your Data From A Hurricane, Flood, or Natural Disaster

By Eric Z Goodnight on August 26th, 2011

save data

In the event of a disaster or major evacuation, you don’t just want to stay safe—you want to make sure all your important data is safe, as well. Here’s how to backup data and protect your hardware from the elements.

While the loss of data pales in comparison to the loss of life, it can make a return to normalcy that much easier to have important information, photographs, and documents protected when you have to act fast and plan an escape. In this extensive article, we’ve included links to emergency planning websites, information about various disasters, checklists for emergency supply kits, loads of great ways to backup your data, both off and online, and a final contingency plan—removing your hard disk, and evacuating to safety! Readers are encouraged to share their experiences in dealing with natural disasters, as well as the backup solutions that have worked out best.

 

First Things First: Be Prepared, and Be Safe

sshot-372

Although this article is primarily about protecting your data, the first place you should always start is by protecting yourself. Regardless of where you live and what sort of disaster you might be facing, preparation is always key and, in the right situation, could possibly save your life. There are numerous resources online for advice and planning for emergencies and disasters, including Ready.gov, which is a US government public service website for spreading this very type of information. On it, you can find instructions on how to make emergency kits, create emergency plans with your family, and general information about what to expect in case of earthquake, flood, hurricanes, and many many other potential disasters. Here’s a short list of links to some of the information available.

sshot-369

One of the most important things to prepare is an emergency supply kit. These usually include non-perishable food, batteries, prescription medicine, water, clothes, flashlights, radios, and various other items that would prove useful in case you are forced to evacuate, or have to leave your home for an extended period of time. Ready.gov has a very helpful checklist in PDF form, for printing or downloading.

What Data Is Most Important?

4326924027_d5f8647a69_z

In an emergency situation, you might not have all the time in the world to leisurely make a complete backup of your drives. Prioritize what’s important to you, e.g. family photos, an expensive music collection, tax and legal documents, school assignments, creative work, or maybe even video game save files. Our own tech superhero The How-To Geek, has already written a pretty handy description of what’s most important back up.

 

Keep Important Data In the Cloud

sshot-370sshot-373sshot-374

One very useful strategy is to upload your data to cloud-based services, provided that the services you’re uploading to don’t have servers based in the effected area. The advantage of keeping lots of your data in cloud-based services is that if you lose your PC or it gets broken, you can jump to any other machine and retrieve the bulk of your most important information.

Photo sharing websites like Flickr can be a good place to back up photos, and in case of disaster or hard drive failure, can be a good place to reclaim lost images. Dropbox is a good service for remotely backing up those important files, although you may want to encrypt important documents with sensitive data, like tax forms with social security numbers, etc.

Email and communication is also terribly important, because it allows you to store not only lots of text based information, but also images, contacts, and important correspondence. Gmail, in addition to this, also has the ability to make phone calls and send text messages, so it can be terribly important to keep an email account that you can access from any computer.

Author’s Note: We realize that there are TONS of cloud based services you can store data in, and it would be futile for us to list them all. But for the sake of helping out your fellow HTG readers, feel free to share your favorites with us in the comments below.

 

Back Up Your Data Online With Pay Services (And One Free One)

sshot-365

There are also myriad ways to pay for automatic online backup. While we don’t particularly endorse any one brand over another, some of the major contenders are Mozy and Carbonite.

In addition to this, you can also check out an older How To Geek article, about how to remotely back up your data for free with CrashPlan.

 

Use External Hard Drives, Key Drives, or Hard Drive Enclosures

sshot-380sshot-379sshot-377

Some sensitive data you might not be comfortable uploading to Dropbox or putting on Flickr. For that, external hard drives and key drives can be excellent solutions. External drives have great portability, and for those of you that need greater portability still, flash drives like the Lacie Iamakey are easy to carry and dependable (Author’s note: This is based on my own personal experience). You might feel better keeping your most sensitive data encrypted on your keychain, rather than emailing it to yourself in Gmail.

Hard drive enclosures are simple USB devices that internal drives can hook into. Basically, they can turn an internal hard drive into an external one, and can be swapped out easily. Keep reading, and we’ll show you how to remove your internal hard drives in a worst case scenario.

 

Protect Sensitive Electronics With Dry Bags

sshot-371

Dry bags are designed for kayakers and rafters to keep their keys, food, and other items dry when they’re going down a river or body of water and fall in. If you think you might have to deal with a lot of flooded areas, you might want to look into a few dry bags for your electronics. Be careful, though—while dry bags will float and keep your electronics dry during a quick dip underwater, they may not be rated to be submerged for long periods of time.

Dry Bags (Google Shopping)

 

Worst Case Scenario: Take Out That Drive and RUN!

DSC_0014 copy

Last but not least, in the situation when you don’t have your data backed up, you don’t have it on a laptop or smaller computer, and you can’t lug that huge tower around with you, it may come down to removing your hard drive. Here’s a quick photo how-to for those of you that have never done it before.

Disclaimer: Opening your computer is scary, and yes, it can cause a lot of problems if you aren’t careful. So be careful, and be warned, you it is possible to do more harm than good. In general, though, removing hard drives is simple business.

DSC_0021 copy

You will need only one tool to open your computer tower—an ordinary Phillips head screwdriver. Normally magnetized screwdrivers don’t cause any harm, but they still are not recommended for this task.

Author’s Note: A small percentage of you may need a torx or hex head driver. These tools are less common, as are the bolts. At least, this is true in the places we’re going to be working, which are designed to be opened the normal way.

DSC_0025 copy

Notice that the computer is unplugged, and make sure yours is as well before removing the screws on the back of the case.

DSC_0034 copy There are usually four on an ordinary computer case, and they hold the two sides in place. If yours has more, you’ll simply have to unscrew more bolts.

If your case is weird and exotic, look in the manual for the case, or use Google to find out directions on how to get it open.

In general, there are only a few fasteners, and they go through the side casings as shown here, highlighted in red.

DSC_0047 copy

Remove the left side of the case by pushing it towards the back. You may have to lift up and out, or simply push back towards the back, or even remove the top first, although this is less common.

DSC_0039 copy

While you’re at it, you may need to remove the right side of the case, as many hard drives are screwed in on both sides of the drive cage. Like the left side, the right side removes by being pushed toward the back.

DSC_0054 copy

Isn’t it beautiful? We need to remove those cables, then get the drive out.

DSC_0057 copy

This closeup shows an older standard for hard drive power and data. Yours may look different, and in fact, will likely be SATA power and data. These are actually easier to remove than these old IDE/PATA standards. Regardless, you’ll be looking for this spot in your case, where your hard drive is installed. Note the screws on the right.

DSC_0064 copy

Remove the IDE/PATA data and power cables by gently rocking them back and forth. If they’re the smaller SATA cables, they won’t take as much coaxing to remove. IDE cables can be stubborn.

DSC_0073 copy

This is roughly what your drive cage should look like, facing out to you on the left side of the PC. We’re going to simply unscrew these.

DSC_0083 copy

There’s not a lot to it, really. With your drive unplugged, take out all the screws holding the drive in place.

DSC_0088 copy

Check out the right side of the case before attempting to remove the hard drive. It may have additional screws holding the drive in place. They’ll be in a place like the one pointed to here.

DSC_0099 copy

Handle the drive by the sides, and keep your fingers off of the circuit board. Take it straight out, and be careful not to bump it against any of the other components, if you can help it—it can be bad both for the drive and the other components.

DSC_0101 copy

Your drive is now removed, and should be ready to be a part of your mad dash away from danger.

IMG_0149

In addition to removing your drive, it can be helpful to keep anti-static bags on hand to protect your drive from the elements. These are good for storing drives outside of actual computers, and protect them from static shock. In addition to this protection, the additional layer of a dry bag may save your data when briefly submerged in floodwaters.


With hurricanes approaching, tsunamis, and earthquakes in our recent past, it can only help your chances to be prepared for disaster. Stay safe out there, HTG Readers, and keep your data protected!

Image Credits: Katrina’s Fury by Sue Cline, available under Creative Commons. Hard Drive by walknboston, available under Creative Commons. Family History by alittlebirdy, available under Creative Commons.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Stetson-wearing wild man. During the day, he manages IT and product development for screenprinted apparel manufacturing; by night he creates geek art posters, writes JavaScript, and records weekly podcasts about comics.

  • Published 08/26/11
More Articles You Might Like

Enter Your Email Here to Get Access for Free:

Go check your email!